2046 (2004): Wong Kar-wai’s Melancholy Film Noir

“2046” is not as satisfying, accomplished, and cohesive as “In the Mood for Love,” the first commercially successful Wong Kar-wai movie in the U.S, winning the best foreign language film from several critics groups. But Wong is such a consummate artist, possessing such dazzling skills, that there are enough reasons to consider this picture seriously—and revisit it periodically—along the former works. 

Suffused with the same melancholy, retro look, and visual style as “In the Mood for Love,” “2046” is film noir par excellence. There are tragic elements of entrapment and melancholia in the new film, centering on a man who feels trapped in the past and in the future, while trying to escape the present.
The lead actors are superb. Zhang Ziyi, seen in Zhang Yimou’s martial arts “House of Flying Daggers,” establishes herself as a leading lady and femme fatale of the first order, while Hong Kong star Tony Leung Chiu-wai continues to show the same dominance and abundant charisma he had exhibited in other films.
Narratively, “2046” unfolds as a visually seductive reverie on memory, history, space, and regret, revolving around one womanizing man and his experiences with different women, each one more enchanting than her peer.
The title refers to the number of the hotel room in which the couple engages in extra-marital affair, but it also bears a more general and political meaning, signaling the date of Hong Kong’s integration into China.
The story opens in 2046, when vast train networks circle the entire world. “Every now and then a train leaves for 2046,” says the Japanese voice of Tak (TV drama star Takuya Kimura), “but no one ever comes back, except me.” Tak is seen with his mistress (played by singer-actress Faye Wong), whom he’s trying to convince to return with him; when she doesn’t commit, he goes his way.
Second sequence is set in Singapore in 1966. Chow Mo-wan (Leung) is trying to persuade his lover Su Lizhen (Gong Li in scarlet lipstick and beehive period hairdo) to leave with him on a boat to Hong Kong. When she demurs, Chow leaves alone. 
Chow moves from being a struggling pulp writer to a professional gigolo, the story follows him through three other affairs, all beginning on December 24, between 1966 to 1969. The women stay in room 2046, and Chow in 2047.
The first is goodtime girl Lulu (Carina Lau), who gets murdered. She is followed by Jingwen (Wong again), the daughter of the hotel’s owner (Wang Sum). She’s in love with a Japanese guy whom her father disapproves of, and Chow writes a sci-fi novel (“2046”), inspired by her, in which two lovers flee to the future. The story then shifts to Bai Ling (Zhang), the last of Chow’s lover, an upscale hooker from China, with their affair being the film’s most involving
Wong reworks a quintessential motif of film noir, the impossibility of returning to the past and yet the inevitability of its effect on the present (and future).  As usual, the musicals core is rich and diverse, from Bellini’s Bel Canto “Casta Diva” aria, through Latino rhythms, to songs like Nat “King” Cole’s “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)”).
Production values, overseen by Wong’s regular team, headed by production designer William Chang, are polished and sumptuous, creating the proper, variegated moods for each sequence.
End Note

Maggie Cheung makes a special cameo, appearing for a few seconds, as woman in bed, shot from high angle. Gong’s character has the same name as Cheung’s “In the Mood for Love.” Not surprisingly, Chow tells her: “I once knew a woman with the same name as yours.”